Thirty years after the Velvet Revolution, Czechs and Slovaks are once again using mass street protests to shake up the political landscape.
Although today’s protesters say they are inspired by the 1989 uprising that brought down communism in what was then still Czechoslovakia, theirs is a different fight: They see themselves as trying to defend the current political system — liberal democracy — rather than overthrow it.
The demonstrators say they are trying to fight back against creeping authoritarianism as well as widespread cronyism and corruption. If they succeed, they could reshape the image of governments in Central and Eastern Europe, which have been accused by rights organizations and EU officials of backsliding on democratic values.
But success is far from certain. Both in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the protesters are facing off against deeply entrenched political interests and leaders with substantial popular support.
And although they have plenty in common, the protest movements in the two countries are also quite distinct.
Protesters in the Czech Republic, meanwhile, have drawn inspiration from the success of their neighbors. But the situation they face is more complex.
Prime Minister Andrej Babiš is facing opposition on many fronts, including from protesters calling for his resignation over accusations of corruption. A preliminary audit by the European Commission found he had breached conflict-of-interest rules in connection with subsidies paid to his Agrofert holding company.
In addition, Czech police have recommended that Babiš be charged with fraud over the alleged misuse of €2 million in EU subsidies for his Stork’s Nest resort. If convicted, Babiš could face up to 10 years in prison. He has denied the charges.
For months, the protests against the prime minister have been growing in size. The most recent demonstration was also the largest, with nearly 300,000 people protesting in Prague’s Letná park. It was the biggest anti-government demonstration in the country since November 25, 1989 — four days before the official end of communist rule in Czechoslovakia — when some 800,000 protestors gathered in the same spot to demand the end of the Soviet-run regime.
Benjamin Roll, the deputy chairman of the group A Million Moments for Democracy, which is organizing the anti-Babiš protests, said that the Slovak protest movement had been an inspiration for them. “We hope that something similar happens here, that new parties and new politicians will come out of our movement,” he said.
Yet Petr Just, a political scientist at Metropolitan University Prague, said that unlike in Slovakia, “there is no feeling among the anti-Babiš groups that there is room for a new extra-parliamentary party, such as Progressive Slovakia.”
He believes that the Czech Pirate Party, currently the third-largest bloc in parliament, may benefit most from the protests, saying: “When we see that most of the [protest] mobilization is with younger people, and we look at the voting demographics, we see that most of the people in their 20s vote for the Pirate Party.”
The Pirates are now polling in second place behind Babiš’s ANO movement with 18.5 percent, a survey by the Kantar polling agency published by Czech Television last month showed.
The government’s popularity, meanwhile, appears to have taken a hit since the protests. The Kantar poll put ANO at 25.5 percent — its lowest level since 2016 and a decrease of 7.5 percentage points compared with March, the month when the anti-Babiš demonstrations began to grow in scale.
But Ivan Bartoš, chairman of the Czech Pirate Party, warned that the protests were not enough to unseat Babiš. “What is important now is that these protestors carry the message back to their towns and villages,” he said. “The only way to make them effective is through the elections. The protestors have to persuade others that there are better options [than Babiš].”
The next Czech legislative elections are scheduled for October 2021. Petr Just, the political scientist, believes that the embattled prime minister will serve out his full term, “unless something serious happens.”
Something serious might happen, however. Currently, a dispute over whether to replace Culture Minister Antonín Staněk has prompted Babiš’s coalition partners, the Social Democrats, to threaten to quit the government — which Babiš said would trigger a snap election.
And Babiš’s troubles don’t stop there. Later in the summer, the European Commission is expected to deliver its final audit on the prime minister’s alleged conflict of interest. In the fall, the Stork’s Nest court case is due to begin.
“If the government doesn’t fall this summer, then the audit and the Stork’s Nest legal affair will be key moments,” Bartoš said.
MORTKOWITZ, SIEGFRIED “Czech and Slovak protesters shake up political landscape” Politico EU, 08 July 2019, https://www.politico.eu/article/czech-and-slovak-anti-government-protesters-shake-up-political-landscape-eastern-europe/